The two volumes of The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature showcases some of the best writing of the 20th century
Photos: Clockwise from front: M. Mukundan; AS Priya; Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Chandu Menon, OV Vijayan, MP Narayana Pillai, ONV Kurup (with spectacles) and Sarah Joseph. Collage by Amit Bandre; the book covers
By Shevlin Sebastian
'The deep black of her locks, its length, abundance, and softness were most alluring. As for her lips, I wonder whether it is possible to see their likeness in women who are not Europeans. Her eyes - their length, their triple tone, their sparkle, the way she uses them on occasion, and the intense fire in them - can be described only by young men who have been subjected to their effect. In addition, she was at an age when her bosom was filling out. Is there a man invulnerable to the power of those growing breasts? Can anyone describe the bewitching beauty of this Indulekha!'
This is an extract from Chandu Menon's 'Indulekha' (1889). “This is the first novel in Malayalam that has the characteristics of a Western novel,” says PP Raveendran, Professor Emeritus at the School of Letters, Mahatma Gandhi University. “And it has been presented as a social narrative. One can say that it is a realistic presentation of society during those times where a feudal way of life was giving way to an industrialist-capitalist one.”
But it also had a powerful impact on society. “It led to a radical reform of the ways of the Namboodiris and Nairs, the two major communities featured in the novel,” says Raveendran. “No organised movement could have brought about a social transformation that this novel did.”
The Indulekha extract was featured in The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature, which has been edited by Raveendran and Prof. GS Jayasree. There are two volumes: while the first deals with poetry, drama and prose, the second book focuses on fiction.
Expectedly, many greats are featured in the fiction volume. They include names like Ponkunnam Varkey, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, SK Pottekkatt, T. Padmanabhan, O.V. Vijayan, MT Vasudevan Nair and M. Mukundan.
One notable omission is Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. And the reason is because the editors could not get the required copyright permission.
Asked about the target audience, Raveendran says, “This will benefit ordinary readers, those who have specialised in literature as well as research scholars from outside Kerala, who want to read Malayalam literature. This is the first time that such a comprehensive anthology of Malayalam literature has been published in English.”
Not surprisingly, thanks to the patriarchal nature of Kerala, males dominate the list. “But, in recent times, more women writers have emerged,” says Jayasree, the Director of the Centre for Women's Studies, Kerala University. “They include AS Priya, KR Meera, Sarah Joseph, Gracy, Geetha Hiranyan, and S. Sithara.
This is a beautifully produced set. The Adobe Garamond font is a delight to read. Before each story or drama or prose, there is a biographical sketch, so the reader is fully aware of the author's career as well as a description of the story he or she is about to read.
And some are highly imaginative. In MP Narayana Pillai's 'The Court of King George The Sixth', he writes: 'As rain and sunshine fell on me, moss slowly covered me. The soles of my feet were eaten by termites. The tips of my toes put forth buds. My hair turned into upward-growing roots. My hands became branches.'
Adds Raveendran: “Pillai created a world of myth, magic and fantasy peopled with devas, asuras, yakshis, ghouls sorcerers, demons and other natural and supernatural beings.”
There is an equally vibrant writing in the Poetry, Drama and Prose volume thanks to the presence of well-known writers like N. Kumaran Asan, G. Sankara Kurup, K. Ayyappa Paniker, and the late ONV Kurup.
All in all, this is a sumptuous celebration of Malayalam literature.
(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvannanthapuram)